'Walker's men kept beating Shoat. I thought they might kill him. This seemed like something we might need someday.'
'But the code...'
'He kept repeating a sequence of numbers in his delirium. I don't know if it was the code or not, but I memorized it.'
Ike squatted on his heels beside her. 'See what happens.'
Ali hesitated. What if it didn't work? She carefully touched the numbers on the keypad and waited. 'Nothing's happening.'
This time a red light flashed for ten seconds. The tiny display read ARMED. There was a single high-pitched beep, and the display read DEPLOYED. After that the red light died out.
'Now what?' Ali despaired.
'It's not the end of the world,' Ike said, and threw the box in the water. He fished out a square coin he'd found on the trail. It was very old, with a dragon on one side and Chinese calligraphy on the other. 'Heads, we go left. Tails, right.' He gave it a flip.
They climbed away from the luminescent waters of the sea and its rivers and streams into a dead zone separating their worlds. They had bypassed the region on their descent via the Galapagos elevator system, but Ike had dipped into this barrier zone on other travels. It was too deep for photosynthesis to support a surficial food chain, and yet too contaminated by the surface for the subplanetary biosphere to survive. Few animals passed up or down between those worlds, none by accident. Only the desperate crossed through this lifeless, tubular desert.
Ike backed them away from the dead zone, found a cavity that Ali could capably defend, then went hunting. At the end of a week he returned with long strings of dried meat, and she did not ask its source. With these provisions, they reentered the dead zone.
Their progress was hampered by boulder chokes, hadal fetishes, and booby traps. It was also made difficult by their gain in altitude. The air pressure was decreasing as they approached sea level. Physiologically they were climbing a mountain, and simple walking became an exertion. Where the path turned vertical and they had to scale cracks or inside tubes, Ali's lungs sometimes felt near to bursting.
She sat up gasping for air one night. After that, Ike employed an old Himalayan rule of thumb: climb high, sleep low. They would ascend through the tunnels to a high point, then descend a thousand feet or so for the night. In that way, neither of them developed pulmonary or cerebral edema. Nevertheless, Ali suffered headaches and was visited by occasional hallucinations.
They had no way to track time or chart their elevation. She found their ignorance liberating. With no calendar or hour to mark, she was forced into the moment. With every turn, they might see sunlight. But after a thousand turns without an end in sight, she relinquished that preoccupation, too.
Next Thomas heard silence. The plainsong and chants and drumming, the sound of children, the talk of women: it had stopped. All was still. Everywhere the People were asleep, to all appearances exhausted by their vigil and rapture. Their silence was a relief to the ears of a trained monk.
Quiet, he wanted to command the crucified lunatic. You'll wake them.
Only then did he hear the hiss of aerosol, the fine mist leaking from Shoat's laptop computer. Thomas worked the air into his scarred lungs, then worked to thrust it out as a shout or a whistle. His people were never waking, though.
He stared in horror at Shoat. Taking a bite of the meat hanging by his cheek, Shoat stared right back at him.
Ike's beard grew. Ali's golden hair fell almost to her waist. They were not really lost, because they had started their escape with little idea where they were anyway. Ali found comfort in her prayers each morning, but also in her growing closeness with this man. She dreamed of him, even lying in his arms.
One morning she woke to find Ike facing the wall in his lotus position, much the way she'd first seen him. In the blackness of the dead zone, she could make out the faint glow of a circle painted on the wall. It could have represented some aborigine's dreamtime or a prehistoric mandala, but she knew from the fortress that it was a map. She entered Ike's same contemplation, and the lines snaking and crossing one another within the circle took on dimension and direction. Their memory of the wall painting guided them for days to come.
Badly lamed, Branch entered the ruins of the city of the damned. He had given up finding Ike alive. In truth, fevers and delirium and the poison on that hadal spear had harrowed him so that he could barely remember Ike at all. His wanderings wound deeper less from his initial search than because the earth's core had become his moon, subtly pulling him into a new orbit. The myriad pathways had reduced to one in his mind. Now here he was.
All lay still. By the thousands.
In his confusion, he was reminded of a Bosnian night long ago. Skeletons lay tangled in final embrace. Flowstone had absorbed many of the dead back into the plastic floor. The putrescence had become an atmosphere all its own. Currents of stench whipped around building corners like squalls of rowdy ghosts. The one sound, besides the whistle of abyssal wind, was of water in canals slicing away at the city's underbelly.
Branch meandered through the apocalypse.
In the center of the city he came to a hill studded with the ruins of an edifice. He scanned it through his night scope. There was a cross on top, and it held a body. The cross drew him as a childhood relic, a vestige of some Arthurian impulse.
His bad leg, plus the closely packed dead, made the climb arduous. That reminded him of Ike, who had talked about his Himalayas with such love. He wondered if Ike might be somewhere around here, perhaps even on that cross.
The creature on their crucifix had died much more recently than the rest of them, unkindly sustained by a shank of meat. Nearby, a Ranger's sniper rifle lay broken in pieces beside a laptop computer. Branch couldn't say whether he'd been a soldier or a scientist. One thing was certain, this was not Ike. He had been newly marked, and the grimace held a jumble of bad teeth.
As he turned to leave, Branch noticed the corpse of a hadal dressed in a suit of regal jade. Unlike the others, this one was perfectly preserved, at least from the neck up. That curiosity led to another. The man's face looked familiar to him. Bending closer, he recognized the priest. How could he have come to be here? It was he who'd called with information of Ike's innocence, and Branch wondered if he'd descended to save Ike, too. What a shock hell must have been for a Jesuit. He stared at the face, straining to summon the good man's name.
'Thomas,' he suddenly remembered.
And Thomas opened his eyes.
New Guinea They stood stock-still in the mouth of a nameless cave, with the jungle spread before them. All but naked, a little raving, Ali resorted to what she knew, and began to offer a hoarse prayer of thanks.
Like her, Ike was blinded and shaken and afraid, not of the sun above the ropelike canopy, or of the animals, or of whatever waited for him out there. It was not the world that frightened him. Rather, he did not know who he was about to become.
There comes a time on every big mountain when you descend the snows and cross a border back to life. It is a first patch of green grass by the trail, or a waft of the forests far below, or the trickle of snowmelt braiding into a stream. Always before, whether he had been gone an hour or a week or much longer - and no matter how many mountains he had left behind - it was, for Ike, an instant that registered in his whole being. Ike was swept with a sense not of departure, but of advent. Not of survival. But of grace.
Not trusting his voice, he circled Ali with his arms.